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Pianist Irena Koblar infuses the traditional with refreshing quirks at McEvoy Auditorium

Irena Koblar. (Martin Baebler)

Slovenian pianist Irena Koblar’s program Sunday at the Smithsonian’s McEvoy Auditorium may have looked like the epitome of the conventional — a group of Scarlatti sonatas as a warmup, some Mozart and Beethoven and, after intermission, Brahms (with Chopin as an encore) — but Koblar gave each piece such an idiomatic reading that nothing sounded old hat.

There was the light transparency of her Scarlatti, with its stairstep dynamics and sometimes wistful wanderings; the improvisatory exuberance of the Mozart Variations on Gluck’s “Unser dummer Pobel meint”; and the way she substituted weight for attacks in the six Brahms Opus 118 set, which together highlighted what was special about each composer’s special language.

The Beethoven was her biggest challenge. His opus 77 Fantasy is one weird piece. It lurches from flights of ornamental and romantic fancy to the doldrums of despair with sudden detours through moments of simple folklike melody. Its rhythmic patterns trip over themselves in sudden hiccups. Every once in a while, a whiff of string quartet sonority floats by, and, where the variations that Mozart improvised reflect a composer completely at ease with his idiom, the Beethoven, also an improvisation, sounds like a mind befuddled by too many new idiomatic possibilities.

Koblar navigated through all this with drama, playfulness, emotional intensity or whatever it was that the Beethoven needed at the moment and never even tried for a coherence that did not exist.

Her encore, the Chopin “Fantasie Impromptu,” was lush and limber and had some members of the audience humming along.

Reinthaler is a freelance writer.

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